Learning from a loss is like learning to read from a book littered with spelling mistakes. Unless you have a dictionary handy, it's not a great strategy; and even if you do, your learning process is going to be so much longer and inefficient as to make it untenable.
What can I say? I just don't buy into all the rhetoric that shows up after a loss--all the clichés and idioms and parables are just empty to me and it feels like they encourage the wrong type of analysis. When people talk about learning from a loss, it tells me that they are approaching the situation with binary thinking, as in "If I would have done this, I wouldn't have lost" or "If I didn't do that, I wouldn't have lost."
There is no abstraction approaching it that way and that is where the problems start in properly debriefing a loss or a setback of any kind. Winning, on the other hand, encourages abstract analysis. Losing encourages sweet but mostly meaningless salves, like covering up medicine with sugar.
In fairness, cool quotes are always going to end up being bumper stickers, t-shirt slogans or book titles. It’s the quality of a pithy saying that it can be applied indiscriminately to everything from a dead rapper talking about how competitive he is to temporarily waylaid love and the lessons learned from it.
And every competitor needs to process a loss in their own way and nobody can tell someone that they are grieving “wrong.” These kinds of sayings can become the mantras that lead out of the dark place failure can sometimes plunge us. I just don't think you should rely on something that doesn't come from deep inside of you, even if you heard it once before and the person who said it was your hero.
Pictured: Everybody and nobody said this first.
But here’s what I’ve noticed about pithy sayings and fortune cookie wisdom--it means more to the people hearing it than the people saying it. The people saying it are usually thinking something along the lines of “if only I had zigged when I zagged” or a variation thereof; given the choice between winning or spouting some zen-like koan, most will choose the win.
And if a treacly pop song lyric is what you need to get through a bad patch, so be it--this also seems to be doubly effective when everyone ignores the source that inculcated this thinking in popular culture and attributes it to someone much cooler. Then it's badass instead of the last line before the bridge and a ukulele solo in a song that makes you want to stick toothpicks in your ears.
However, it’s tough to admit that publicly, so the truth of the matter gets a little obfuscation with a nearly meaningless trope that carries the day. Through the lens of fighting, we see quickly that losing always has the same rationale.
"I got caught."
"My gas tank emptied."
"I underestimated his size."
"I underestimated his reach."
"I didn't prepare as well as I should have."
They are all the same in execution if not content in that the person saying them often believes that had they done the opposite of the described behavior or action, it would have gone their way or at least been a better outcome.
Probably not, though. And that's the problem with linear thinking. It stifles problem-solving and narrows vision. That's also why learning from a loss is mostly a zero-sum affair in the long run. Learning from a win, though? That's where brilliance lies.
See, if you can identify winning actions and replicate them, you will keep on winning. Identifying losing behaviors and trying to eliminate them is not the same thing. It's like bailing out a sinking boat without patching the hole letting the water in.
But good job! You're still going to sink probably, but at least you're learning, I guess...?
If you lose a fight or any sporting event for that matter, forget the loss. Go back to your wins and find the things that helped you succeed, then double down. If you haven't won before, like in the case of a debuting fighter or someone on a losing streak, then look to the closest corollary and collect evidence there that implies success (e.g., sparring). Just don't focus on failures and assume that it's as simple as doing the opposite of what cost you the win in the first place.
That's not learning so much as it is hoping and the problem with hope is that it never dies--it just keeps going and going, even in the face of loss after loss after loss. Great for Shawshank Redemption quotes, not so much for winning fights.
Besides, hope didn't dig that tunnel for Andy Dufresne. Work did--and Andy knew that. It gave his life meaning. His success came from the application of effort to a problem, not sitting around hoping. And that’s the key: work.
Work trumps hope any day of the week. And if you're going to do the work, do it based on how you've won in the past, not how you've lost. Why start tainted? Forget it and work on the positives, not the negatives; your success left you clues. Work is what living is about--if self-improvement is the macro goal, work is the micro target to achieve it. You live your dreams through work and that's what keeps us going.
This is why, after a string of losses or setbacks, you inevitably hear fighters say "I'm going back to the old version of me." After desperately trying to learn from losses and making the best of the bad, whether intuitively or not, they realize that they need to replicate the successes of their past. It's just usually too late by that point because REALITY: losing has become the habit. Learning from losses has replaced duplicating winning behaviors. Focusing on "win OR learn" has supplanted "win AND learn" to the detriment of the athlete.
Binary thinking isn't the answer and seldom is. If you get drunk, drive, and crash your car, binary thinking will only give you two choices: quit drinking or quit driving. Doesn't that seem a little limited in perspective?
Problem solving needs to happen on a spectrum. Winning gives you a spectrum. Losing does not, especially if you approach it with an "I shouldn't have done whatever" type of thinking. It's dismissive of what brought to the dance in the first place and reductive to the point of negligence.
Winning is the best teacher. To paraphrase Andy Dufresne, get busy winnin' or get busy losin'